In the last few months, many American Christians have been up in arms about MAiD. MAiD is Medical Assistance in Dying, Canada’s euthanasia program. Canada has assisted terminally ill patients with dying since 2016, but in 2021 they expanded the categories of eligible people. The result has been a dramatic increase in medically-assisted deaths and an increasing cultural awareness of the program, in Canada and the United States.
MAiD has become a phenomenon—there are commercials for it in Canada, think pieces about it everywhere, and many, many questions. It has not only gained popularity, it has gained some Christian support in Canada. It also has Canadian Christian opponents, but the course of events has led to some necessary and serious conversations in the United States about what is happening across the border and how Christians should respond. A recent Plough article on the topic quoted Stanley Hauerwas: “If in a hundred years, Christians are identified as the people who don’t kill their children or kill their elders, we will have done well.” Hauerwas is right but rejection of MAiD is not enough. Churches should be places where no one would seek or suggest MAiD because we do so well at caring for our marginalized members.
The Christian reasons for objecting to MAiD are many. Most obviously, it fails to affirm the dignity of all human life. It also suggests that suffering negates the value of life. MAiD-eligible criteria not only include people with terminal illness but people with chronic illness or mental illness, such as depression. The expansion is especially troubling. The practice could easily function as a form of eugenics and it certainly is already applied in a way that seems to eliminate the most needy members of society. MAiD certainly reflects very distressing cultural trends and is an opportunity to create clear distinctions between Christians and the culture around them. To effectively resist MAiD and its implications, we should look at it from a few different angles.
In some ways, the expansion and embrace of MAiD reflect a shift in how our society sees happiness. It’s not new to pursue happiness. The pursuit of happiness is in our constitution. We can find it in the classical era, too. But in the past fifty years, we have built more and more of our expectations around happiness. In fact, some people connect the emphasis on happiness with adult child-parent estrangement. Many children are no longer satisfied with being raised with enough of everything, they can be resentful if they were not given a happiness-filled childhood. Hard times and sad memories may be a reason never to call your parents again. MAiD also suggests that if there is not enough happiness—due to the suffering of long-term depression or some similar condition—life is inadequate.
Every Christian we know has an imperfect life, but that doesn’t mean that we always emphasize the fact that suffering does not diminish the meaning of one’s existence. There are plenty of think pieces about it, but how often do we consider that an underlying core value when we develop new programming or make practical decisions? We live in a nearly Brave New World Society, with CBD on every corner for all that ails us and non-stop streaming services—we have to think of practical ways to remind ourselves that the good life includes some suffering. This isn’t the kind of thing that can only be doctrinally affirmed and have an impact.
Christians in America can resist legislation, but will we also embrace our elderly? In truth, we have a pretty serious bias against older Christians. A church that ministers primarily to the elderly or an older demographic is very often considered “dying.” That is the actual terminology we use. A denomination preferred by older people is one we dismiss. A church that plays music older people might like is often considered to be making a mistake. We can cater to everyone’s tastes except theirs.
It is difficult to affirm the dignity of all life when we make it clear that we don’t care as much about older people as we do others. In our private lives, we often put older people in homes. In our church lives, we put them outside the circle of significance. They used to be in the choir, but, in many cases, we’ve discontinued the choir. Lots of churches have stopped “shut in” ministry, too. Many churches pour almost all of their resources into children’s and youth ministry, emphasize the needs of younger families, and, when they pursue seekers, often aim for under 65. It's not wrong to minister to younger people, but sometimes it seems that souls over sixty are not our concern.
The articles and interviews surrounding MAiD have also made it clear that many who consider and go through with it have a sense of isolation and see themselves as either suffering alone or as an undue burden on others. In many cases, MAiD is chosen by people who have “no other options”—they have needs and often lack close family or have very limited financial resources. Do the people who might consider MAiD also see themselves as similarly disposable or burdensome in our Christian communities? What about our adult singles, who sit alone in the church service and probably eat most of their meals alone? Can they expect to feel cared for when they get older if they have no family? This dilemma could be positioned as a push for churches to simply become more important providers of social and financial services, but that is neither likely to happen nor is it likely to fully solve the problem.
When people can maintain their sense of human dignity, they can survive a great deal. We can see this in works like A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Moments of Reprieve by Primo Levi, the former about life in a gulag and the latter about life in a concentration camp. If people feel that they have a place in a community and are more than a burden or embarrassment, that also empowers them to persevere. And when that feeling is based on reality, they have a reason to persevere—because they are recognized by others, too, as having something to offer.
Christians are right to be thinking about legislation surrounding euthanasia, but we can also drive down demand by reflecting on how we do and don’t affirm human dignity, for all kinds of people, in our community. We need to find more ways to avoid reinforcing health and youth as markers of significance. (It would also free up a lot of mature pastors from having to dress like teenagers.) We need to affirm the people who feel isolated and alone, by making it clear that they fit into our lives and that we would rather include them, and help them when needed, than lose them.
Doing more to affirm the dignity of those who are not always celebrated by our communities is right, but it is also worthwhile. The people who miss the fellowship hall may seem old-fashioned, but abuelas win more hearts for Jesus than Christmas worship albums do. Singles volunteer and donate more money than their married counterparts. We can throw a meal train their way once in a while. People with chronic illnesses who persist in the faith have lessons to teach us all.
Legislation is one way to avoid the encroachment of euthanasia, but affirmation of human dignity is a necessary complement. We will best distinguish ourselves when we don’t have people in our own communities to whom MAiD would seem to make sense. The ongoing conversation around MAiD is an opportunity for us to re-examine and adjust our approaches to affirming the dignity of the people around us.